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AFA hockey aims for the stars


Frank Serratore looked at his Air Force hockey team before its first preseason workouts, thought about how far the Falcons had come in reaching two straight NCAA Tournaments, and knew this season might be special.

But nothing like this. Nothing like being 12-0-0 at Thanksgiving, ranked No. 11 in the latest polls, leading the country in goals per game (5.17) and power-play success (27.7 percent), with a chance to make a bigger statement this weekend at home Friday against No. 3 Colorado College, then Saturday at No. 9 University of Denver.

"I'd like to just go in and say to the team, 'Hey guys, No. 13 coming up,'" the head coach says. "But we've got some high ACT scores in our locker room. They would see through that."

Instead, the ever-quotable Serratore has come up with sharp psychology. First, he sees Air Force as hockey's version of football's BCS-busters, Utah and Boise State.

"We're just like those little guys," Serratore says. "Nobody believes they're good enough. With us, the naysayers keep saying we haven't played anybody yet, but it's not like we've been barely winning [recent scores: 7-1, 8-1, 5-1, 8-2, 6-0, 6-2]. Now the pollsters will be relieved. They don't know what to do with us. ... People wonder where we should sit on the food chain. They're about to find out."

About CC and Denver: "If ever there was a time for them to be nervous about playing us, it's not now. It's not like, if they lose to us, it'll be a huge embarrassment and their RPI [ratings percentage index, used to rate teams for NCAA consideration] would drop out of sight. We're ranked, and we've already shown we can play with them."

About his team: "To be honest, the pressure is on us to prove we're good enough. Our guys don't want to let our fans down. They want to be thought of as worthy of being in the Top 15 in the country."

Air Force had been competitive since Serratore's arrival in 1997-98, but the Falcons were usually around .500 until the breakthrough in 2006-07. They won the Atlantic Hockey Association's postseason tournament, earned an automatic NCAA berth, played powerful Minnesota tough before falling, and haven't lost their momentum since.

Air Force went 21-12-6 last winter, handed Denver a 5-2 whipping, finished third in the AHA regular season, repeated as league tournament champions and pushed top seed Miami of Ohio into overtime in its NCAA opener before losing, 3-2.

Counting their still-spotless start this season, the Falcons are a stunning 39-13-6 since late February 2007.

"Winning makes you confident," Serratore says. "When you look at our program, we have a lot of the tangible things CC and DU have. We've got banners in the ceiling, and the kids have rings on their hands."

One difference for the Falcons has been goaltending, as Andrew Volkening, now a junior, has given Air Force a solid presence in the nets. The success also has helped recruiting. This hasn't been just one good class of players; the Falcons have had ideal mixes of seniors down to freshmen each season.

"We're attracting the kind of players we need to attract," Serratore says. "The way we play, we need to be deep because we have to outwork everybody. ... We might not get the blue-chippers who will be high NHL draft picks, but we have a good chance at the next level. The difference is, for years we were selling what we could be; now we're selling where we are.

"There's no question, either, the CC and DU kids look at us differently now. You can see it in their eyes. You can feel the respect."

Serratore would love to know just how big the crowd could be Friday. He'd even give up the Cadet Ice Arena advantage for a temporary ice sheet at Falcon Stadium.

"If we did that, everybody in the Springs would come," Serratore says. "So what if it's cold? It's hockey. They'd go just so they could say they were there."

Instead, if you don't have a ticket now, forget it. Air Force hasn't beaten CC since 1985, but it was 2-1 last year in a game that could've gone either way.

Just like this one could.

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